Although Choisy is only twelve or fifteen kilometres from Paris, it was in those days just a small provincial town, with its Hôtel de Ville and its Committee of Public Safety sitting there, its Grand' Place, its ancient castle then used as a prison, and its famous bridge across the Seine. To the south and west of the Grand' Place there were two or three residential streets with a few substantial, stone-built houses, the homes of professional men, or of tradespeople who had retired on a competence, and farther along a few isolated, poorer-looking houses, such a one as old Levet's lying back from the road behind a small grille and a tiny front garden. But all these features only covered a small area, round which stretched fields and spinneys, with here and there a cottage for the most part roofless and derelict.
It was in one of these dilapidated cottages which stood in a meadow about half-way between Choisy and the height on which was perched the Château de la Rodière, that what looked like a troupe of itinerant musicians had sought shelter against the cold. They had made up a fire in the wide open hearth; the smoke curled up the chimney, and they sat round with their knees drawn up to their chins and their arms encircling their knees. It was the middle of the morning. The wintry dawn had been fine, but already its beauty had gone: ugly grey clouds gathered overhead, and a few thin flakes of snow were beginning to fall. The men sitting there appeared to be waiting for something or someone. They didn't say much: one or two of them were smoking clay-pipes, others were munching bits of stale bread or scraps of cheese which they drew out of their pockets. There were four of them altogether inside the cottage, and one sat outside on a broken-down stool propped against the wall, apparently on the watch. They all looked as if they had just donned such garments as they happened to picked up in an old clothes dealer's shop-a blouse, or a knitted vest, sabots or shoes down at heel, and breeches very much the worse for wear. In a corner of the room a number of musical instruments were piled up, a miscellaneous collection of violin, guitar, trumpet and drum. Precariously perched on top of this pile of rubbish sat Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart., the most fastidious dandy fashionable London had ever known, the arbiter of elegance, the friend of the Prince of Wales, the adored of every woman in England. He too was unwashed, unkempt, unshaved, his slender hands, those hands a queen had once termed exquisite, were covered with grime, his nails were in the deepest mourning. He wore a tattered blouse, sabots stuffed with straw on his bare feet, threadbare breeches and on his head a Phrygian cap which had once been red. At the moment he was scraping a fiddle, drawing from it wailing sounds that provoked loud groans from his friends and an occasional missile hurled at his head.
"Percy, if you don't leave off . . ." one of them threatened, and shied a mouldy piece of cheese at his chief.
"What will you do if I don't?" Sir Percy countered, and successfully dodged the missile, "for I am not going to leave off. I must get this demmed tune right, as we surely will be made to play it presently."
He went on scraping the opening bars of the new "Marseillaise."
"We are in for some fine sport, I imagine, what?" Lord Anthony Dewhurst remarked, and dug his teeth into a hard apple, which he had just extracted from his breeches' pocket.
"Tony," one of the others demanded-it was my Lord Hastings, "where did you get that apple?"
"My sweetheart gave it me. She stole it from her neighbour's garden . . ."
My Lord Tony got no further. He was attacked all at once from three sides. Three pairs of hands were stretched out to wrest the apple from him.
They were just a lot of schoolboys on the spree, these men, enjoying this life of voluntary penury and intense discomfort, sometimes even of starvation and always of short-commons, for it was not always thought advisable for the type of ragamuffin that they appeared to be to buy sufficient food in the markets, in places where the movements of every man, woman and child were known and reported to the police. But they didn't mind. They loved it all. It was such sport, they said, and all in the wake of their chief whom they would follow to the death.
"We are in for some fine sport!" Lord Tony had declared, before the attack on his apple was launched. He held it up at arm's length, trying to rescue it from his assailants who made grabs at it and invariably got in one another's way, until a firm hand finally seized it and Blakeney's pleasant drawly voice was raised to say:
"I'll toss you all for this precious thing . . . what there is left of it."
Sir Andrew Ffoulkes won the toss, and the apple, which had suffered wreckage during the fight, was finally hurled at the head of the revered chief, who had resumed his attempts at getting a tune out of his cracked fiddle. A distant church clock had struck eleven a few minutes ago. The man on the watch outside put his head in at the door and announced curtly:
"Here he comes."
And presently Devinne came in. He was dressed in his ordinary clothes with dark coat, riding breeches and boots. His face wore a sullen look and he scarcely glanced either at his friends or at his chief, just flung himself on the ground in front of the fire and muttered between his teeth:
"God! I'm tired!"
After a moment or two while no one else spoke he added as if grudgingly:
"I'm sorry I'm late, Percy. I had to put up my horse and . . ."
"Listen to this, you fellows," Blakeney said with a chuckle as he scraped his fiddle and extracted from it a wailing version of the "Marseillaise."
Young Devinne jumped to his feet, strode across the floor and snatched the fiddle out of Blakeney's hand.
"Percy!" he cried hoarsely.
"You don't like it my dear fellow? Well I don't blame you, but-"
"Percy," the young man rejoined, "you've got to be serious . . . you have got to help me . . . it is all damnable . . . damnable . . . I shall go mad if this goes on much longer . . . and if you don't help me."
He was obviously beside himself with excitement, strode up and down the place, his had pressed tightly, against his forehead. The words came tumbling out through his lips, whilst his voice was raucous with agitation.
Blakeney watched him for a moment or two without speaking. His face through all the grime and disfigurement wore that expression of infinite sympathy and understanding of which he, of all men, appeared to hold the secret, the understanding of other people's troubles and difficulties, and that wordless sympathy which had so endeared him to his friends.
"Help you, my dear fellow," he now said. "Of course, we'll all help you, if you want us. What are we here for but to help each other, as well as those poor wretches who are in trouble through no fault of their own?"
Then, as Devinne said nothing for the moment, just continued to pace up and down, up and down like a trapped feline, he went on:
"Tell us about it, boy. It is this La Rodière business, isn't it?"
"It is. And a damnable business it will be, unless . . ."
"Unless you do something about it in double quick time. Those ruffians in Choisy are planning mischief. You knew that two days ago, and you have done nothing. I wanted to go up to La Rodière to warn them of what was in the wind. I could have done it yesterday, gone up there this morning. It wouldn't have interfered with any of your plans: and it would have meant all the world to me. But what did you do: You took me along with Stowmarries to drive that old abbé as far as Vitry, a job any fool could have done."
"But you did it so admirably, my dear fellow," Sir Percy put in quietly, when young Devinne paused for want of breath. He had come to a halt in front of his chief, glaring at him with eyes that held anything but deference; his face was flushed, beads of perspiration stood on his forehead and glued his matted hair to his temples.
"Percy . . . !" he cried, not trying to disguise his exasperation. But Blakeney went on still quite quietly:
"You did the fool's job, as you call it, as admirably as you have always done everything the League set you to do; and you did it because you happen to have been born a gentleman and the son of a very great gentleman who honoured me with his friendship, and because you have always remembered that you swore to me on your word of honour that, while we are all of us engaged on the business of the League, you would obey me in all things."
"An oath of that sort," the young man retorted vehemently, "does not bind a man when-"
"When he is in love, and the woman he loves is in danger . . ." Sir Percy broke in gently. "That is what you were going to say, was it not, lad?"
He rose and put a kindly hand on Devinne's shoulder.
"Don't think I don't understand, my dear fellow," he said earnestly. "I do. God knows I do. But you know that the word of honour of an English gentleman is a big thing. A very, very big thing and a very hard one sometimes. So hard that nothing on earth can break it: but if by the agency of some devil, that word should get broken, then honour is irretrievably shattered too."
"Now tell me," he resumed more lightly, "did you on your way back from Vitry call on Charles Levet and tell him that the Abbé Edgeworth is by now safely on his way to the Belgian frontier?"
Devinne looked sullen.
"I forgot," he said curtly.
The others-Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, Lord Anthony Dewhurst, my Lord Hastings-had not spoken one word since Devinne had come into the room. Sir Philip Glynde (he was the son of the head of the great banking firm Glynde & Col, of Throgmorton Street), who had been on the watch outside, was leaning against the door-jamb, whilst keeping an eye on the road. He too was silent like the others and, like the others, his face expressed something like horror. It is a little difficult to estimate in these less romantic times, the depth of feeling that all these young men had for Percy Blakeney. It was a feeling akin to reverence, and the love they bore him had no resemblance to any love that any man has ever felt for another . . . and this because that love had its foundation in admiration for the character of the man: his extraordinary selflessness, his perfect disregard of personal danger and the cheerfulness with which he sacrificed everything, his personal comfort, even his love for his wife, in the cause of suffering humanity. And now to think that this boy . . . this . . . this young muckworm daring to . . . to what? . . . to defy their chosen chief . . . ? It was unthinkable. Sir Andrew thought it sacrilege, Lord Tony unsportsmanly; Hastings would have struck him in the face, and Glynde would have taken him by the scruff of his neck and thrown him out into the road.
Blakeney gave a quaint little laugh:
"Gad! That is a pity," he said. "Fancy forgetting a little thing like that. But we have no control over our memory, have we? Well, dear lad, you have a long walk before you, so you'd best start right away now. Tell Charles Levet that the abbé is now with some Belgian friends who are looking after him. I promised the old man that I would let him know, he has been very good to us, and we must keep in touch with him. I have an idea that he and his family may have need of us one day."
Devinne still looked sulky.
"You want me to go to the Levets' house? Now?"
"Well, you did forget to call in on your way. Didn't you?"
"Then don't expect me back here-I shall go straight on to La Rodière."
There was a slight pause, during which no human sound disturbed the kind of awed hush that had fallen over this squalid, derelict place. Blakeney had scarcely made a movement when young Devinne thus flung defiance in his face. Only Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, the man who perhaps among all the others knew every line around the mouth of his chief, and every expression in the deep-set lazy blue eyes, noted a certain stiffening of the massive figure, and a tightening of the firm lips. But this only lasted for a few seconds. The very next moment Blakeney threw back his head and his prolonged inimitable laugh raised the echo of the dilapidated walls. The humour of the situation had tickled his fancy. This boy!! . . . Well! . . . It was absolutely priceless. Those flaming eyes, the obstinate mouth, the attitude of a schoolboy in the act of defying his schoolmaster, and half afraid of the cane in the dominie's hand seemed to him ludicrous in the extreme.
"My dear fellow," he said, and once again the friendly hand was laid on Devinne's shoulder, and the kindliest of lazy blue eyes looked down on this contumacious boy, "you really are a marvel. But don't let me keep you," he went on airily. " I don't suppose the Levets will invite you to dinner, and if they don't it will be hours before you are there and back and able to get something to eat. Anyway, you will meet us again in the restaurant, without fail, at one o'clock."
This, of course, was a command. Blakeney had been standing between Devinne and the direct access to the door. He now stepped a little to one side, leaving the way free for the young man to go out. There was an awkward moment. Devinne, half-ashamed but still half-defiant, would not meet the chief's gently ironical glance. The others said nothing, and after a minute or two, he finally strode out of the cottage. A thin layer of snow lay on field and road, and deadened the sound of his footsteps. Glynde after a time put his head in at the door.
"He is out of sight," he announced.
Lord Hastings jumped to his feet.
"My turn to watch," he said. "Glynde is frozen stiff."
"Never mind about the watch now," Sir Percy interrupted. "We are fairly safe here, and there are one or two things I want to talk over with you fellows."
With a gesture of the hand he seemed to dismiss Devinne and the boy's incipient rebellion out of his mind and to ask the others to forget also. They were willing enough to do this for the time being; there was nothing in the world they enjoyed more than to talk things over with the chief. Hunger, cold, discomfort, even dirt were all forgotten when they could squat round on the floor and hear him tell them of those wonderful adventures which he planned and which had for their aim the rescue of innocent men, women and children, from the hands of an administration that knew neither mercy, justice nor restraint; adventures, full of danger and excitement, which had become as the breath of life to them all.
"We are agreed, are we not?" Blakeney resumed, as soon as he held their full attention, "that for the next day or two we must concentrate on those wretched people up at La Rodière. Monsieur le Marquis François we care nothing about, it is true, but there is the old lady, there is the young girl and there are the two old people who have been faithful servants and are, therefore, just as much in danger as their masters. We cannot leave François out of our calculations because neither his mother nor his sister would go away without him. So it will be five people-not to say six-whom we shall have to get over to England as soon as danger becomes really imminent. That might be even no later than this evening. We shall be up there with the riotous crowd during the afternoon, and we shall have our fiddle, our trumpets and our drums, not to mention our melodious voices with which we can always divert their thoughts from unprofitable mischief, to some equally boisterous but less dangerous channels. You all know the ropes now: we have played that game successfully before and can do it again, what?"
There was unanimous assent to the project.
"Yes, by gad!" came from one of them.
"It is a game I particularly affection," from another.
"Always makes me think of tally-ho!"-this from the keen sportsman, Lord Anthony Dewhurst.
And: "Go on, Percy! This is violently exciting,"-from them all.
The fire had burned itself out; no one thought of feeding it; for one thing there was no more fuel. The wind drove in by the rickety door and unglazed window; they were shivering with cold, these young exquisites, but they were hard as nails, and certainly they didn't care. Excitement kept them warm. They were just like schoolboys looking forward to a raid on a neighbour's orchard, and they hung breathless on the lips of the man, their leader, who had planned the adventure for them.
"We'll bide our time, of course," Blakeney now continued. "Our friends, the worst of the hotheads, once they have accomplished their purpose and asserted their rights and privileges to make themselves unpleasant to the aristos, will turn their backs on La Rodière, their spirits slightly dampened perhaps. They will then crowd into the nearest cabaret, there is one close to the château, they will talk things over, eat and drink and allow those hellish agitators to talk their heads off, while we shall continue to addle their brains with strains of sentimental music. And all the time we'll be watching the opportunity for action. Of course, during the course of a long afternoon a number of incidents are certain to occur which we cannot foresee and which will either aid or hinder us. You know my favourite motto, to take Chance by the one hair on his head and force him to do my bidding. In a small place like this by far our best plan will be to proceed once more to La Rodière as soon as the crowd has made its way back to Choisy and we find the coast fairly clear. We'll go in the guise of a squad of Gendarmerie Nationale and there arrest Monsieur le Marquis, his mother, his sister and the two faithful old servants. With a little luck, those tactics are sure to succeed."
He paused a moment, striding up and down the narrow room, a set look on his face. His followers who watched him waited in silence, knowing that through that active brain the plan for the daring rescue of those innocents was gradually being elaborated and matured. After a time Blakeney resumed.
"I am not taking Devinne with us at any time this afternoon. The crowd up at the château is certain to deal harshly with the family, and if Mademoiselle Cécile is rough-handled he might do or say something rash which would compromise us all. So I shall send him to our headquarters outside Corbeil, to instruct Galveston and Holte to have horses ready and generally to be prepared for our arrival with a certain number of refugees, among whom there will be two ladies. Galveston is very expert in making all arrangements, I know I can trust him and Holte to do the necessary as far as lies in their power."
"At what time do you think you will carry the whole thing through, Percy?" one of the others asked. "The arrest, I mean, and the flight from La Rodière?"
"I cannot tell you that just yet. Sometime during the night, of course. I would prefer the early dawn for many reasons, if only for the sake of the light. The night might be very dark, bad for fast driving. But I will give you instructions about that later. It will only be by hearing the talk around us that I shall be able to decide finally. I shall also have to ascertain exactly how much help mine host of the cabaret will be willing to give us."
"You mean the cabaret on the Corbeil road, not far from La Rodière?"
"A matter of two or three hundred yards, yes. It boasts of the poetic sign: 'The Dog Without a Tail' I have been in touch with mine host and his Junoesque wife already."
"Percy, you are wonderful!"
"Glynde, you are an ass."
Laughter all round and then Blakeney resumed once more:
"There will also be Pradel to consider."
"Pradel?" one of them asked. "Why?"
"If we leave him here, we'd only have to come back and get him later. They'll have him, you may be sure of that. He has one or two bitter enemies, as men of his outstanding worth always have, and there are always petty jealousies both male and female that make for mischief. Anyhow, he is too fine a fellow to be left for these wolves to devour. But I shall be better able to judge of all this after I have gauged the temper of the crowd both at la Rodière and afterwards."
"That young Marquis was a fool not have got away before now."
"He wouldn't hear of it. You know their ways. They are all alike. Some of them quite fine fellows, but they have not yet learned to accept the inevitable, and the women, poor dears, have no influence over their menfolk."
"Then we are going up to La Rodière with the crowd, I take it," Lord Hastings observed.
"Certainly we are."
"You haven't forgotten, Percy, by any chance . . .?" Sir Andrew suggested.
"I think not. You mean, my dear friend Monsieur Chambertin, beg pardon, Chauvelin?" Blakeney rejoined gaily. "No, by gad, I had not forgotten him. I am pining for his agreeable society. I wonder now whether during his last stay in London he has learned how to tie his cravat as a gentleman should."
"Percy! will you be . . ." Lord Tony hazarded.
"Careful, was the word you were going to say, eh, Tony? Of course, I won't be careful, but I give you my word that my friend Chambertin is not going to get me--not this time."
A soft look stole into his deep-set eyes. It seemed as if he had seen a vision of his exquisite wife Marguerite wandering lonely and anxious, in her garden at Richmond waiting for him, her husband and lover, who was her one absorbing thought, whilst he . . . She too was his absorbing thought, the great thought, that filled his mind and warmed his heart: but it was not all-absorbing. Foremost in his mind were all those innocents, little children, men and women, young and old who, unknown to themselves seemed to call to him, to stretch out imploring arms towards him for comfort and for help: those were the moments when Marguerite's lovely face appeared blurred by the rain of tears shed in devastated homes and inside prison walls, and when he, the adoring husband and devoted lover, dismissed with a sigh of longing, all thoughts of holding her in his arms.
Such a moment was the present one, when the name of his deadly enemy recalled as on a transient picture, his life of happiness and of ease in England: the garden at Richmond, his beautiful wife, the many friends, and a sigh of longing for it all came involuntarily to his lips. But the moment was very brief. A few seconds only went by, and Sir Percy Blakeney was once more the Scarlet Pimpernel, the man of action and of heroic self-sacrifice, the leader with so forceful a personality that he was able to hold nineteen men to his will, obedient to his commands, ready to face every kind of danger, even to meet death at a word from him.
"And now," he said, his voice perfectly firm and incisive, "it is time that we collected our goods and saw whether our friends down at Choisy are ready for the fight."
They set to, to collect their musical instruments, their fiddles and drums and trumpets. Just for a moment the glamour of the coming adventure faded before one hideous fear of which not one of them had ever spoken yet, but which troubled them all.
Blakeney was humming the tune of the "Marseillaise."
"I wish I could remember the words of the demmed thing," he said. "What comes after: 'Aux armes, citoyens! ?' Ffoulkes, you ought to know."
Sir Andrew replied almost gruffly: "I don't," and Lord Tony called suddenly to his chief:
"Yes! What is it?"
"That fellow, Devinne . . ."
"What about him?"
"You don't trust him, do you?"
"The son of old Gery Rudford, the straightest rider to hounds I ever knew? Of course I trust him."
"I wish you wouldn't," Hastings put in.
"The father may have been a sportsman," Glynde added; "the son certainly is not."
"Don't say that, my dear fellow," Blakeney rejoined; "it sounds like treason to the rest of us. The boy is all right. Just mad with jealousy, that's all. He has offended his lady love and she will have nothing more to do with him. I dare say he is sorry that he behaved quite so badly the other morning. I'll admit that he did behave like a cad. He is only a boy, and jealousy . . . well! we know what a bad counsellor jealousy can be. But between that and doing what you all have in your minds . . . Egad! I'll not believe it!"
Hastings murmured savagely: "He'd better not."
Sir Philip Glynde nearly punched a hole in the drum, trying to express his feelings, and Lord Tony muttered a murderous oath. Sir Andrew alone said nothing. He knew-they all did, in fact-that Blakeney was one of those men who are so absolutely loyal and straight, that they simply cannot conceive treachery in a friend. Not one of them trusted Devinne. It was all very well making allowances for a boy thwarted in love, but there had been an expression in this one's face which suggested something more sinister than petty jealousy, and though nothing more was said at the moment, they all registered a vow to keep a close eye on his movements until this adventure in Choisy, which promised to be so exciting, had come to a successful issue, and they were all back in England once more, when they hoped to enlist Lady Blakeney's support in persuading Percy not to rely on young Devinne again.